If we want to preserve Singapore’s hawker culture, we need to be willing to pay for it.
A commentary & radio interview.
Over the weekend, a commentary that I wrote on hawker prices was published on CNA and has sparked a bit of debate. Much of the discussion has been robust and I thought I’d share my views on some of them:
“Letting hawkers set their own price at will is going to raise the cost of living for everyone. Thus, price controls are justified.”
Some have argued that even though Singapore is a first world nation, the cost of housing and car ownership (though whether this is truly a necessity in Singapore is debatable) is a lot higher than many of its counterparts. The only thing that is keeping our cost of living in check is cheap hawker food and it’s been this way for decades, with keeping hawker food affordable being “a cornerstone of government policy”. But while cheap food might have been a possibility when hawkers were offered rent subsidies by the government, now with more than half of our hawkers not being on subsidised rents, that narrative is broken.
“If it’s not cheap, it’s not hawker food.”
Because the ideology of hawker food being cheap food has been so pervasive, anyone who has grown up in Singapore in the past couple of decades would feel bothered by price hikes. This is an intuitive, reflexive response which is inevitable, even for someone like me who has grown accustomed to paying at least S$15 the minute I leave my home for a sit-down meal in Australia. Also, given that hawker prices are in the single digit range, any price hike feels significant (for example a rise of S$4 to S$6 is a 50% increase) and feelings of outrage even more knee-jerk.
If hawker food is not “cheap” and patrons have to clear their own trays and put up with no air-conditioning, some say that there is no reason to eat hawker food. “Might as well eat in an air-conditioned eatery.” Therein lies the problem - inherently, do we recognise the value of our hawker food? Do we truly feel that it is unique, world-class, and intangibly precious - everything we claim we believe when we nominated it for UNESCO? Because if we do, then the best way for us to demonstrate that belief is to put our money where our mouth is.
Comments that I read that grind my gears include things like: “Hawkers are using the excuse of inflation to charge higher.” or “Only when your food is good, then you can increase the price.” There was also this 8days article that I find troubling on many levels - the journalistic angle that emphasised the hawkers’ “uncommon sense of gratitude” when they choose to keep prices low amid economic pressures, and the way hawkers have internalised society’s expectations of them fulfilling the role of a social worker or charity in feeding “people with no money”. I referenced the article and addressed the line of thinking in these comments in the CNA938 radio interview that I’ve embedded in this newsletter.
What is worth our time discussing are solutions, especially with regard to considerations for low-income households & the problem of high rental and miscellaneous fees that plague hawkers. While 40% of hawkers are on the subsidised rental scheme (who pay between $56-320 per month), most have their rentals determined via a bidding system. The upper limit for this is usually S$5,000 but it can go up to even $10,000 a month as the fees are entirely dictated by the free market. And then you have hawkers whose landlords are not the government, but corporations such as Timbre who have been reported to charge an average of $4,000. How many plates of chicken rice would a hawker have to sell to break even and not make a loss - and we are only talking about rent as one part of the cost equation!
KF Seetoh, our country’s loudest voice for the hawkers, proposed that “the authorities get rid of the bidding process, offer a fair rental and give it to the most deserving ones, may it be based on the menu, talent and preservation of Singapore’s unique food culture.” But this opens up a can of worms. With demand surpassing supply of available stalls, how do we decide who is the most deserving? How do you quantify talent, especially amongst hawkers who cook in such varied styles?
A lot of food for thought, and definitely important discussions we should all have, if we are to ensure that our hawker food culture is to be preserved and kept alive for generations to come. If you have a perspective, please comment via the link below - I would love to hear from you:
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